This is a guest post by University of Washington political scientist Christopher Parker, a co-author of Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America.  His interview with Ezra Klein from last week is here.


The sustained opposition to the Affordable Care Act and the government shutdown have demonstrated the considerable power that the Tea Party retains among congressional Republicans, even as its support among voters has slipped.  Tea-Party conservatives justify their views based on conservative principles. For example, they contend that the ACA is a symptom of a government grown so big that it encroaches on Americans’ freedoms.

But if Tea Partyism is just conservatism, why don’t all congressional conservatives embrace the Tea Party’s approach to politics and public policy? Why does John Boehner, speaker of the House, often appear reluctant to embrace Tea Party tactics? Why did John McCain call congressional Tea Partiers “wacko birds” a while back? Why did Bob Dole say neither he nor Ronald Reagan would feel comfortable in today’s Republican Party?

My new book on the Tea Party, co-authored with Matthew Barreto, seeks to better understand the Tea Party’s motivations.  We find that the Tea Party is driven by far more than garden-variety conservatism.

We argue that the Tea Party is better understood as a reactionary conservative force.  It prefers the sorts of dramatic changes that threaten the stability traditional conservatives usually seek to preserve.  Reactionary conservatives fear losing their way of life amid social change. To preserve their group’s social prestige, they’re willing to undermine long-established norms and institutions. Furthermore, reactionary conservatives are more likely to subscribe to conspiracy theories as a means of explaining the perceived erosion of their dominance. Reactionary conservatives will, therefore, claim that their “enemies” are destroying their way of life.  Compromise is commensurate with defeat, not political expediency.

The difference between traditional and reaction conservatism is evident in an analysis that Barreto and I did of 42 Tea-Party websites in 15 states, alongside content from the website of a traditional conservative publication, the National Review. We found that the vast majority of National Review content emphasized core postwar conservative beliefs: small government, an emphasis on values, and strong national defense. Only five percent of the National Review’s content focused upon conspiratorial themes. On the Tea-Party websites, only 30 percent of the content concentrated on postwar conservative beliefs. However, 33 percent of the content here was conspiratorial.

In our survey research, a list experiment also revealed how Tea Party conservatives think differently than other conservatives.  We randomly divided survey respondents into two groups and asked them how many of a list of statements — but not which statements — they agreed with.  The only thing that differed across the two groups was whether the list of statements included the proposition that “Obama is destroying the country.” The results showed a striking divergence: 71 percent of Tea-Party conservatives agreed with this statement but six percent of non-Tea Party conservatives did.

We also explored the roots of identification with the Tea Party.  We found that, even after controlling a host of factors — including ideology and attitudes toward African-Americans — Tea Party identifiers were more common among those believing that Obama actively promotes socialism.  This again suggests motives more akin to reactionary conservatism.

The rift between Tea Party conservatives and others conservatives is one that challenges the Republican Party and potentially imperils the American economy if the debt ceiling is not raised.  Although House Republicans rode a Tea Party wave to victory in 2010, Tea Party candidates arguably cost Republicans at least four Senate seats. In 2012, Republicans lost eight House seats, and two possible seats in the Senate.

An open question is whether the Republican Party will ultimately emulate William Buckley’s handiwork from the 1960s. When Robert Welch and his John Birch Society continued to allege that establishment conservatives were in cahoots with the Soviet Union, Buckley essentially ejected them from the conservative movement. To his mind, the movement would cease to survive if burdened with the baggage of Welch’s rhetoric. Buckley’s move ultimately paid off. It set the stage for the success of a conservative movement that has been a force in American politics for almost 50 years.

The question is whether the conservative movement of today will remember that lesson.